Women In Science

Françoise Combes: gazing at the stars and working to reverse science stereotypes

French astrophysicist Françoise Combes.
French astrophysicist Françoise Combes. © Dhananjay Khadilkar

The French astrophysicist Professor Françoise Combes was recently conferred with two prestigious honours. The 68-year-old was awarded the CNRS Gold Medal for 2020 while, in February, she was named as one of the five laureates of the L’Oréal-Unesco Women In Science Award for 2021.

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During her career, Professor Combes has made several significant contributions to astrophysics, including analysing the dynamics of galaxies and the discovery of molecules in the interstellar medium. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, RFI’s Dhananjay Khadilkar spoke to Professor Combes about her research and the challenges women face while pursuing a scientific career.

How did you start your career in astrophysics? 

At the beginning, I was attracted only to physics. But, I was also impressed with scientists - astrophysicists, biologists such as Louis Pasteur - who had made an impact with their research. 

And then I did some physics studies and at the point when I was searching for a topic to write a master's thesis, I looked at several laboratories. My first work was on the cosmology of symmetric matter and antimatter. It was a lot of fun to study this. I was convinced that it was really a very exciting topic.

What would you consider to be the key milestones in your scientific career?

There are several key milestones. We started by making some cosmological models. Though they were fantastic models, it wasn’t working. As a result, I was changing topics several times. The first one that was successful was about the search for molecules in the interstellar medium. This was in the '80s, and it was a new area. We were discovering new organic molecules like acetone and alcohol. The existence of these molecules in the interstellar medium was a surprise.

And then we went on to discover these molecules in other galaxies, like Andromeda. We were the first to discover molecules of carbon monoxide in the Andromeda galaxy. Then it went further and further until the Big Bang. It’s fantastic that we could detect molecules more than 12 billion light years away. These molecular clouds are cradles of stars, planets and certainly of life. So, this was an exciting topic. 

How did you feel when you first made this discovery, something that you said was totally unexpected?

That was when we went to the United States because there were no telescopes in the millimeter wavelengths to detect molecules. People in the US tried to find these molecules in Andromeda but did not find them. We were searching for different locations and it was surprising that we finally made this detection. So it was really rewarding. Afterwards, we had telescopes in Europe. In France, we now have a big array of telescopes with which we can detect the molecules. It’s exciting work.

How do you compare the research during the '80s to today? 

It’s completely different because we had to travel for weeks. And now we can observe from our homes. Even with Covid-19, we can manipulate telescopes from our homes and receive the results. So there is no need to travel. And also, there was no internet. So we were working with a big tape. We would try to reduce tape and paper and so on. We were writing papers on typewriters. If there were some errors, we had to cut and paste with paper and scotch instead of copying and pasting like we do in computers. It was very long. But now, it’s very productive. We can write 10 papers when we could write just one in the old times. It was less productive but exciting too.

As a woman researcher, did you face any hurdles while pursuing such a highly successful scientific career?

At the beginning, no. I didn’t realise anything because when I started my career there were 30 percent women in astrophysics. So it was not a big problem as we were not rare.

Afterwards, going on further in the career, it was a bit worse because there are committees, juries and so on that show some subtle discrimination.

This has been computed and measured statistically. When you ask for time for using telescopes for instance, there are committees that read proposals that you need 10 hours on a particular telescope. There are statistics which show that when the principal investigator, the first person on the proposal, is a woman, it’s less successful even if it’s the same kind of thing.

Now, we are trying to make the process anonymous. There won’t be names in the proposals. This will make the discrimination imperceptible. 

Do you think women researchers in other fields of science face challenges? 

Yes. There are stereotypes that disciplines such as mathematics, engineering and physics are not for women. This is a stereotype in the culture. Women are persuaded that this is the truth. So they look at biology and chemistry. There are more women than men in these sciences. We have to change these stereotypes because women are able to do everything in research. But now we are going further and an award like the L’Oréal-Unesco is good for that - to have role models and encourage women.

What steps can be taken to address this issue?

This issue has to be taken at the roots. It’s the education. In schools, they are educated in this manner. When you look at the first studies, women are even better than men in computation and calculation. It's only later, when they go to universities and they say it’s not for me. And this is due to education more than anything else. We also have to educate women that they have the ability to do it. 

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